Losing a large amount of weight is a truly life-altering experience. Better health, new clothes, new relationship opportunities. The list of positives that come from it is plentiful. But for many, it’s incredibly hard to shake the long-standing mental image of oneself. I was overweight for so long, I lost 100 pounds and still looked in the mirror and saw my 350-pound self for YEARS. Why, though? It might have something to do with ‘phantom fat.’
For people who have lost 60, 80, or 100 pounds, and up, the mental baggage associated with weight loss can be long-term for several reasons. From a physical standpoint, losing a large amount of fat can result in some less-than-desirable alterations to your physique. You’ve replaced a highly overweight body with a more fit body that has cellulite, loose skin, and stretch marks. These “side effects” of weight loss can give a person a whole new level of self-consciousness, oftentimes leaving them with little choice but to have painful skin removal surgery and incur months of healing time.
Physical scars aside, the real damage from weight loss can come from damage to your mental well-being. When you lose a tremendous amount of weight, your mind is forced to “catch up” with your drastically altered body. This is especially true for folks who have lost weight very rapidly. While this will gradually ease over time, the feeling of being a much larger person even though you have a smaller body is one of the most persistent feelings plaguing the newly fit. Just as a person who has lost a limb in an accident feels a phantom limb, the formerly obese may feel phantom fat.
Overcoming Phantom Fat
I look at the battle with the mirror as an addiction. Just as alcohol and drugs are an addiction, “fat shaming” yourself in the mirror for years can become something of an addiction itself, even after you’ve lost the weight. A person goes from hating the overall reflection to picking out small details themselves to fret over. You’ve exchanged one vicious cycle for another, and it needs to stop. Here are some personal ideas on how to change your overall perception of yourself:
A picture is worth a thousand words: Forget the mirror. Take pictures. I promise you you’re never going to see the difference in yourself if you look in the mirror every day searching for improvements. Take pictures of yourself in as few clothes as you feel comfortable with, or refer to past pictures to get a baseline for where you started. Take them every day, every week, or every month and THEN critique your results. Sometimes you’ll be shocked at what comes out of the camera.
Set an attainable precedent, and take your time. This isn’t a contest: So you’ve lost some weight, yet still feel like you could do more? That’s great. Self-betterment is very healthy, but only if you do it right. I used to save and cut out pictures of ideal physiques, from bodybuilders to celebrities, then I realized something. I am a normal person with a job and a kid and responsibilities. I’m not competing in a physique competition nor am I prepping for a movie. I don’t have a team of people whose sole mission in life is to make me look better. I have a team of one. Myself. As long as you’re progressing, no matter how slow it is, it’s still progress. You can’t put a timetable on your overall health, and 99% of us weren’t blessed with the genetic makeup to look like our favorite celebrities.
Learn to expect small failures: That’s right. You’re going to fall off the wagon every once in a while and have a romantic weekend with your old friend the pizza delivery guy and a whole cake. You’re human. It can and WILL happen. Don’t “make up” for your indiscretions by punishing yourself with a juice cleanse or something stupid. Just right the ship, and get back to the habits that got you where you are. No need to beat yourself up over it.
Never stop loving yourself: This might sound cliche or whatever you want to call it, but you were given this one body, and you need to love it through thick and thin. You’re going to gain 10 pounds of your original 50 back, then you’re going to lose it again. You may need to get 10 pounds of skin cut off, or you may have some less-than-desirable stretch marks. Screw what society says. Most people have no idea where you started or what you did to get where you’re at. Be proud, keep working hard, and only keep the people around who accept you for who you are, whether that be overweight you or a newly thin you. Aside from yourself, those are the people who matter. Have any more suggestions you’d like to add? I look forward to hearing your personal suggestions for fighting off personal demons.